The Mysterious Sea Ape of the Aleutian Archipelago
In the summer of 1741, the crew of a secret Russian expedition spotted something off the southern coast of Alaska, and a nautical legend was born.
Illustrations by T Edward Bak
The North Pacific Ocean: late summer, 1741.
The naval voyage of the Second Kamchatka Expedition — a colossal (and cumbersome) secret imperial Russian enterprise, launched to determine North America’s geographic position relative to Asia — is approaching the meridian of its strange apotheosis. En route home to Kamchatka after two months at sea, the St. Peter sails west along the southern coasts of the Alaskan peninsula and the islands of the Aleutian archipelago.
On his first stretch in the Pacific is thirty-two-year-old Georg Wilhelm Steller, an ambitious botanist transplanted from Bavarian soil to a position with the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, the institution he represents here in his role as expedition naturalist. Armed with a fierce intellect buoyed by an innate curiosity, the staunchly Lutheran botanist is trained in scientific practice rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. Aboard the St. Peter, he serves in an additional capacity as t…